In the year since iconic pop artist Robert Indiana died at his home on Vinalhaven, his estate has been consumed in a legal battle playing out in both Maine and New York courts.
Last week that legal battle took yet another turn, as lawyers for Indiana’s estate filed notices in New York federal court requesting the termination of contracts the late artist had with two art foundations for reproduction of his work.
A judge is scheduled to decide sometime in the next week whether these contract terminations will be considered in the ongoing litigation involving Indiana’s estate, according to Rockland attorney James Brannan, who is the executor of Indiana’s estate.
Indiana’s estate argues that the contract Indiana had with Morgan Art Foundation and Indiana’s agent and adviser to Morgan, Simon Salama-Caro, for the reproduction of his “LOVE” images, as well as the contract with art publisher Michael McKenzie and his company American Image Art for the reproduction of his “HOPE” images, should have expired when the artist died in May 2018.
Brannan said terminating the contracts is an attempt to save Indiana’s legacy, both in terms of the value of his artwork and separating the late artist from the turf war surrounding reproduction of his work.
“My job is to carry out the intent of [Indiana’s will] but also to protect his legacy and the market value of his work,” Brannan said. “The market has dipped as the result of this ongoing litigation and we anticipate that until it’s over with, the market is going to continue to dip. But in terminatinating these agreements, we think that’s going to have a positive impact on the market.”
The day before Indiana died, Morgan Art Foundation filed a lawsuit in New York federal court alleging that McKenzie and Indiana’s Vinalhaven caretaker, Jamie Thomas, were isolating the artist and creating fraudulent work. Indiana was named as a defendant in that lawsuit.
Both McKenzie and Luke Nikas, an attorney representing Morgan Art Foundation, said they believe the contracts will be upheld. Nikas called the claims “frivolous” and said his client paid Indiana “every cent he was due.”
Brannan said that from the estate’s perspective, both Morgan Art Foundation and McKenzie still owe money to Indiana.
“These contracts will be upheld, and Morgan Art Foundation and Simon will continue to hold their place as the patron and the preeminent expert in Indiana’s art,” Nikas said in an email. “Unfortunately, it is difficult to believe that the estate or the nonprofit Indiana established will have adequate assets or ability to function when this is all over. Robert Indiana is turning in his grave.”
McKenzie also said he would pursue legal actions to collect “millions of dollars” if his contract is terminated. While McKenzie had a close working relationship with Indiana, he accused the late artist of setting “everyone up for disaster” by allegedly mismanaging his business dealings.
“I tried to be their friend and they want to be my enemy,” McKenzie said. “Robert Indiana set up all of this, the estate has to own that.”
As the legal battle wages on, Indiana’s home, The Star of Hope, sits boarded up and empty on Vinalhaven. In his will, Indiana directed that his estate be used to turn his home into a museum, but Brannan said that work is on hold until the litigation comes to an end.
Last November, the estate sold two pieces of artwork owned by Indiana for $5 million in order to budget for legal costs.
Since Indiana’s death, Brannan has been working to gather the artist’s assets, including artwork, located in galleries or collections around the globe. Brannan said he is nearly done with that work and the estate is currently valued at about $77 million.
“I’m hopeful that by the end of this year, perhaps early next year, that this litigation will be over with and we will be able to start the restoration of The Star of Hope and looking toward the opening of a museum,” Brannan said.